“There will be no earmarks in the 112th Congress. Period.” That is what House Majority Leader-elect Eric Cantor (R-VA) tweeted in response to a Politico article last week reporting that some GOP House members were contemplating breaking their no-earmark pledge. Good for Cantor. Ending earmarking is an essential step toward cutting Washington spending. Unfortunately some of Cantor’s caucus need an education about the unnecessary harm earmarks cause. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA) told Politico:

Let’s look at transportation. How do you handle that without earmarks, since that’s a heavily earmarked bill? How do you handle a Corps of Engineers project? I think, right now, we go through a period where we have gone one step further than we meant to go, and there are some unintended consequences.

Kingston, and journalists like Mike Allen, need a history lesson. The federal government’s dependence on earmarking as THE method for allocating transportation funds is a very recent development. The Heritage Foundation’s Run Utt recently detailed to The Washington Examiner’s Mark Tapscott: “Until 1984, earmarks in transportation appropriations bills averaged about three a year …the 1982 bill included just 10 earmarks, while 1987’s authorized 152.  Back then they were called ‘demonstration’ projects, today they are called ‘high priority’ projects, indicating that the process has corrupted even the language.”

So our federal government managed to fund transportation for over two  hundreds of years without using today’s corrupting earmarking process. It is possible. But all that changed in the 2000s. A 2007 Department of Transportation Inspector General report requested by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) found that between 1996 and 2005, DOT earmarks increased in number by 1,150%, and in value by 314%. According to Taxpayers Against Earmarks, Members of the 111th Congress requested almost 40,000 earmarks worth $131 billion.

Earmarking defenders love to claim that they are not that big a deal since earmarks do not create new spending; they only legally require the federal agencies to prioritize some projects over others. There are two problems with this: first, earmarks are often used to buy votes for other increased social spending (there is no Obamacare without the Cornhusker Kickback, the Louisiana Purchase, or Gator Aid). Second, when politically powerful politicians in Washington earmark money for their favored projects, they are necessarily simultaneously stealing it from other projects. For example, Utt explains how the federal highway program works:

In the most recent six-year reauthorization of the federal highway program (SAFETEA-LU), Con­gress and the President agreed to spend $286 billion between FY 2004 and FY 2009 on federal highway and transit programs and established annual spend­ing limits. Congress also reconfirmed that the amount allocated to each state would be deter­mined by the same mathematical formula that has governed the program since its creation in the mid-1950s. With each state’s financial apportionment set by formula, most of the money for the 7,000 to 8,000 earmarks listed in the bill must therefore come out of each state’s allocation. Thus, if a mem­ber of the Nevada delegation succeeded in getting a $2 million earmark to build a bicycle trail in Elko in 2005, then that $2 million would be taken out of the $254 million allocated to the Nevada Depart­ment of Transportation (DOT) for that year, effec­tively reducing the state’s discretionary spending on its own priorities by that amount.

One of the reasons why earmarks are included in spending bills even though they provide no addi­tional money is that they allow lobbyists and Mem­bers of Congress to preempt a state DOT’s investment priorities. The state may otherwise have concluded that a new lane on a congested highway in a Las Vegas suburb would be more beneficial than a hiking trail, but earmarks allow Washington play­ers to overrule that decision and reallocate the money to other purposes while pretending that the earmark represents extra money.

Instead of projects getting funded on the basis of need or cost benefit analysis, projects get funded on the basis of political favors and seniority. For example, while the Army Corps of Engineers was spending $72.2 million in FY 2005 on flood control in the New Orleans area, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA) was fighting to fund a $194 million project to deepen the Port of Iberia.

That is why a voluntary earmarking ban is not enough. Further reforms are needed to make sure all of our legislators are not corrupting the infrastructure funding process. And there are steps Congress can take to make infrastructure funding more efficient.

We recommend allowing states to opt-out of the federal highway program. States should also be allowed to opt-out of the federal highway program in return for a commitment to meet certain obligations. In return for the right to retain all of the federal fuel tax revenues raised within the state, the state would agree to (1) maintain the interstate highway system to a certain standard of quality, (2) meet a series of existing federal safety standards, and (3) forgo the receipt of any federal transportation spending derived from general revenues.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) has proposed a similar policy for the Harbor Maintenance Tax Fund: allowing states to choose where to use the Harbor Maintenance taxes collected at their ports. DeMint writes:

The national Harbor Maintenance Trust (HMT) Fund collects over a billion dollars each year but never spends all of it on port development. Some of it is used to pay for other government spending and some of it’s used for projects that have no impact on commerce.

While South Carolina has to beg for funding, the Congressional Research Service has pointed out that, “Yaquina Bay and Harbor in Oregon … has received over $25 million in HMT revenues over the last decade. No cargo has been shipped through this harbor in years,” and, “In 1998, the [Humboldt Harbor in California] embarked on a deepening project from 40 to 48 feet but ship traffic has declined since then. About one ocean-going ship calls at this port per month.” Over 1,500 ships called on Charleston last year. … We need to put a stop to this diversion of funds to low-priority projects by politicians like California Sens. Barbara Boxer (chair, Environment and Public Works Committee) and Dianne Feinstein (senior member, Appropriations Committee).

Getting conservatives in the House and Senate to unilaterally stop earmarking is an unequivocal good. However, it is not enough. Our federal infrastructure financing system is broken and fundamental reforms, like those outlined above, will be needed to permanently cut both spending and corruption in Washington.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this post claimed there were no earmarks in 1998. That is not true. According to CAGW there were 2,143 earmarks worth 13.2 billion in 1998 compared to just 546 earmarks worth $3.1 billion in 1991, the first year for which CAGW has data.